Confessions of an Anonymous Coward

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Family Matters

Okay, it's been almost two weeks since I said I'd have up my third post on Dawkins' The God Delusion. Uh...what can I say? I've been really busy. Busy enough, in fact, that...I didn't manage to finish the book before the book club meeting after all. Though this wasn't all that big a deal, since (a) generally many--perhaps most--book club members don't actually finish reading the book before the meeting anyway, and (b) usually the discussion during the book club is only tangentially about the actual book. Anyway, I did read most of it...

Well, though I hadn't finished the book, something did happen at the book club meeting that I've been meaning to post about. At one point, Wendy, one of the book club members, related her telling her mother (or maybe it was her mother-in-law, or some other quasimaternal relation; I don't remember for sure) about her atheism. And rather to her surprise, her mother(-in-law?) confessed that, well, secretly, she didn't really believe in God either.

I briefly thought that I wished there was someone in my own immediate family who might harbor such sentiments, but it seemed unlikely. (Even the gay uncle I've mentioned professes a belief in God, though he has little use for organized religion.) My mother is constantly talking about prayer and eternal togetherness and so on and so forth; certainly no closet atheist there. My brother moved to Utah--enough said. (Okay, that's not fair, and not really meant entirely seriously; certainly not everyone in Utah is a dyed-in-the-wool faithful Mormon. Still, my brother's shown no signs of doubt or of not fitting in with the Utahn norm.) My sister is maybe a little less definite, but there's enough evidence to conclude that she's pretty firmly entrenched in the church as well. And my father...

Hold on a minute...

It occurred to me then that I didn't recall having ever heard my father talk about religion outside of church meetings. It was always my mother who was suggesting prayer, who was urging him to give people blessings and otherwise "use his priesthood". Outside of attendance at church, my father never really engaged in any religious activity or talk on his own initiative. Could it be that maybe he didn't really believe, or at least didn't have strong beliefs, but just didn't want to admit it?

It's possible. My father's always been nonconfrontational, perhaps to a fault; it wouldn't be out of character for him to remain silent on such a matter. On the other hand, he's also just fairly taciturn, so it could also be that he does have strong religious beliefs, but just, well, doesn't talk about them. So I certainly don't regard the matter as proven that he doesn't really believe in the church. But I was surprised it had never occurred to me before that he never talked about it, and it's an interesting possibility...

Anyway, that was a post I'd been meaning to make since the book club meeting almost two weeks ago. And I would leave it there, except that something happened last Monday that's sufficiently related that I'll go ahead and include it in the same post as well.

My brother called me to wish me a happy birthday. In the course of the conversation, though, he eventually mentioned that he had found this blog... This was at the end of what had already been a fairly long conversation, however, so my cell phone battery gave out shortly after he mentioned that, so I didn't talk to him much about it until the next day.

How did he find it? Well, I've mentioned here before that I have a LiveJournal; as it happens, I mentioned in passing in a recent LiveJournal post that I had a blog "where I maintain anonymity and post about subjects I'm not yet ready to discuss more publicly". (I had a reason for mentioning it; it was relevant to the subject of that post; but of course I could have omitted the mention.) My brother had been concerned about certain matters and had tried to find said blog through Google, and apparently had hit on it fairly easily. (I don't know what exact search terms he used, but apparently this blog had come up second among the search results. Plugging in some of the terms he did mention using--"anonymous", "blog", "mormon", "brother" (I'm not sure why he'd try that one, but apparently he did)--brings it up fourth, so this isn't implausible.))

Now, you might say it was stupid of me to mention the existence of this blog in my LiveJournal. Well, certainly when I did mention it there, it did occur to me that this might lead readers of my LiveJournal--my mother or brother especially--to try to find this blog. I didn't really expect it to happen--I didn't think it would be that easy to find. (Then again, I was thinking mostly of my mother, who is more curious but less computer-savvy; I doubt she would have been able to find it. I didn't really consider that my brother might search for it.) But, on the other hand, I did realize it was a possibility.

Coincidentally, someone made a comment on a recent post mentioning that "while [I'm] still maintaining your anonymity in name, it[']s obvious that if someone who knew [me] (brother, friend, other relative) were to stumble on this and read your story they would easily recognize [me]." I replied as follows:

Oh, I've considered that; I know I've revealed enough information about myself in this blog that if someone who knew me well read it they'd be able to recognize me. But I'm not too worried about it. I'm pretty sure no one among my family and the people I know at church makes a habit of browsing atheist blogs, so the chances of their running across my blog--and reading enough of it to come across identifying information--is minimal. And anyway, even if, against all odds, it does happen--well, then, that just forces the issue of my coming out about my atheism, which is something I know I really should be doing anyway...

And really, that was more or less my attitude when I mentioned this blog in that LiveJournal post. Yeah, it occurred to me that maybe I shouldn't do that, because it was possible that would lead to someone finding the blog. But, on the other hand...well, if they did, so what? I wasn't really comfortable keeping these secrets anyway, and if that forced the issue, well, maybe it would be for the best. I'm not even sure that at some level I may not have wanted it to be found...

But, anyway, so what did my brother think about what he read here? Well...obviously he wasn't happy about it. (Though the two posts he singled out as the ones that upset him the most--Something For Nothing and Behind the Zion Curtain--were probably the two I'd consider the most questionable myself, and that I probably would have written differently if for some reason I had to do it over again--I do still stand by the main points I was trying to make in both posts, but I don't think I expressed them at all well.) But, on the other hand, he said there was nothing here he found really shocking. And he took it all a lot better than I expected. In fact, he said some things that really surprised me. I can't repeat it here, because, well, it's personal, and while I may be willing to share personal information about me here it's not my business to share personal information about my brother that I don't think he'd want shared, but suffice to say that his religious attitude is somewhat different from what I thought it would be. Obviously, I disagree with him about religion, but perhaps not quite as much as I thought.

(For what it's worth, by the way, the bit about my brother in the third paragraph of this post was what I had planned to write before my brother called. I'd already more or less composed the post about my father in my head, including that bit (and including the parenthetical comment explaining that it wasn't meant entirely seriously). Rather than change what I'd intended to write after my brother called, I decided to go ahead and write that part of the post as I'd originally intended, and then add this disclaimer here...)

My brother thinks, though, that this is temporary and that I'll eventually be realizing my error and returning to the church. Uh...not a chance of that, I'm afraid. After finally escaping from a prison that's held me for thirty-plus years, I'm not about to go running back, particularly after recognizing all the harm the church does. But anyway...

He's said he won't tell the rest of the family about all this, and I appreciate that. While in a way it's good to have it out in the open with one family member...I don't think my mother, in particular, would take it was well as he did. I said, I don't like keeping these secrets, and I think the time is coming near when I'm going to be ready to make a clean breast of it and come out in the open about what I believe and what I am and let the chips fall where the may. I'm just...not quite ready yet.

I think it may be fairly soon, though. And in any case, at least that's one fewer person now I'm keeping the secrets from...

(Oh, and that third post about The God Delusion? It's still coming...eventually...)

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Open Wide Your Mind

All right, I still owe another post or two about The God Delusion, but I'm going to take a break for that for a moment to post about something else. I admit my main reason for wanting to make this post right now is to try to get it in in time for the next edition of the Skeptics' Circle, but this is a post I'd been meaning to make for a while. Anyway, the next post about The God Delusion should be up tomorrow morning--and for anyone who thinks I may have been too hard on Dawkins thus far, the next post should be more complimentary.


There's a saying which apparently originated with NASA engineer James Oberg but has since achieved wide popularity, particularly, it seems to me, among the skeptical community: "Keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out."

I absolutely loathe this saying, and not only because the wordplay makes no sense. How can your brains fall out of your mind? If the word was "open-headed" or "open-skulled", well, okay, sure, but it's not...

But there are deeper reasons for despising this saying. I think it utterly and dangerously misrepresents what it really means to keep an open mind in the first place. I don't think there's any such thing as having too open a mind, and I think the implication that there is could have some unfortunate consequences.

The purport of the saying, of course, is that those who hold some belief that the speaker considers eccentric have their minds too open. They're too receptive to fringe ideas, and need to close their minds a little (that follows if their minds are too open, right?) to become more rational.

I would argue just the opposite. Those who cling to unsupported beliefs in the face of the evidence don't have minds that are too open. They have minds that aren't open enough. And that needs to be emphasized if we're to point out what's really wrong with their thinking.

What does it mean to have an open mind? Well, to be willing to consider any idea, however much it may conflict with our preferences or preconceptions. If we truly have an open mind, we have to really be willing to entertain the idea that aliens could be abducting people, that God could speak to man, that chupacabras and the Loch Ness monster exist, that the moon is made of rubber cement. But, of course, we also have to really be willing to entertain the idea that all of this isn't true. Having a really open mind means being open to both sides of a proposition.

But having an open mind doesn't mean assuming that any idea has equal merit. It can't, in fact, because that's impossible. In our daily living, we are constantly, by necessity, making judgments between ideas, judging one as more likely than the other. We have to, or we couldn't do anything at all. If we considered it equally likely that we could sate our thirst by drinking paint thinner as by drinking water, we wouldn't last very long. Our every action is motivated by the judgment--whether conscious or not--that one course of action is more likely to lead to the fulfillment of a particular goal than another. (And admittedly often partly by instinct, yes, but that's beside the point.)

None of this is in conflict with being open-minded. A truly open-minded individual should be willing to consider any proposition, yes. But considering a proposition entails making a rough judgment about its probability. If confronted with the idea that the moon is made of rubber cement, an open-minded person won't reject the idea merely because it conflicts with what he's already been told. He will, however, reject the idea because of the evidence against it. For one thing, we have some understanding scientifically of how a giant sphere of rock could be where the moon is. We have no theory for how a giant ball of rubber cement could have gotten up there. For another thing, people have even been to the moon and brought back moon rocks. None of this completely rules out the idea that the moon is made of rubber cement--it's technically possible that a celestial lump of rubber cement formed by means currently unknown to us (or was placed there by playful members of an advanced civilization), and it's conceivable (though given the evidence it's immensely improbable) that all the claims of lunar visitation and moon rocks are part of a vast conspiracy--but it renders it extremely unlikely. For similar reasons, a truly open-minded person is perfectly justified in rejecting the idea that everyone has a giant green marshmallow implanted in his mid-thorax, or that there is a race of hyperintelligent living breaded shrimp living in the sewers under Pittsburgh. In fact, not only is he justified in rejecting these ideas, but he's pretty much obligated to, if he's really open-minded; any reasonable consideration should lead to the conclusion that the probability of either idea being true is pretty much negligible.

Of course, in one sense one could say that someone with a truly open mind never really rejects such a proposition at all--he may decide it's very improbable, but he doesn't rule it out entirely. When the probability is low enough, however--as it is in the above examples--, it amounts in practice to rejecting the proposition completely. Certainly if the probability is that negligible it's not worth acting on, and the individual is completely in the right to behave in most respects as if the proposition is known to be false.

So. Let's look at a typical example of where the "brains falling out" quote is likely to be used. Let's say somebody--let's call him Joe, an arbitrary choice with no offense intended to any readers of that name--holds some paranormal or pseudoscientific belief--it could be a belief in astrology, homeopathy, alien abductions, whatever; the details don't matter. Let's say, for the purposes of this discussion, that he believes in some mystical phenomenon called "kalatrasis" (a word I pretty much just made up on the spur of the moment), with evidential support comparable to the other examples named--which is to say, none. Despite the lack of evidence in kalatrasis, however--and perhaps despite experiments that actually seem to disprove its existence--Joe firmly insists that kalatrasis exists. Joe might be told to not be so open-minded his brains fall out. But is his problem really being too open-minded?

Again, a truly open-minded person should be open to all possibilities. Joe is open to the possibility that kalatrasis exists. Is he open to the possibility that it doesn't? If he were, and if he were honestly evaluating the evidence, would he have reached his conclusion? Insisting on something in spite of the evidence isn't being open-minded; it's being extremely closed-minded, because one is refusing to even consider the alternative possibility--that the evidence is right and the something isn't there. Insisting a priori on the truth of kalatrasis (where of course "kalatrasis" is a stand-in for astrology, homeopathy, alien abductions, or whatever similar unsupported belief you'd like to throw in there) is no more "open-minded" than insisting a priori on its falsehood. The truly open-minded way is to be willing to consider either possibility, and evaluating the evidence to see which one is more likely. And if there's no evidence for kalatrasis, and plenty of evidence against it, then that means that the open-minded person will reject it. In other words, the person who's really being more open-minded isn't the person who firmly believes in the unsupported idea--it's the skeptic.

Of course, there are a few caveats here. First of all, this doesn't mean that to be truly open-minded a person is required to go out of his way to hunt down all the evidence on a given subject. That's not reasonable, and an open-minded person can make a provisional judgment on limited evidence--though of course with the proviso that he's open to revising that judgment later if contrary evidence arises. This is especially true with regards to a particularly complicated proposition, or one that seems to contradict established theories. The burden of proof is then on the person making the proposition, and in the absence of evidence the open-minded person is perfectly justified in rejecting the proposition--at least until such a time as such evidence is presented.

Furthermore, I don't know that anyone really is perfectly open-minded. Open-mindedness is the ideal of the skeptic, of course, but I don't know that any skeptics really achieve it completely; skeptics are human too, and they do have prejudices and make mistakes. At least they do consciously strive for open-mindedness, and are in general more open-minded than other people, but in practice they're not perfect.

Anyway, though, why am I making such a big deal about this? Sure, the "brains fall out" injunction may be a little inaccurate or misleading, but why argue against it at such length? Well, mainly because if we (that is, skeptics) accuse the fringe believers of being too open-minded...then that opens us up to being accused of not being open-minded enough. Believers can--and do--accuse skeptics of being closed-minded when they don't accept their beliefs. This accusation is grounded in a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be open-minded in the first place...but it's a misunderstanding that we ourselves perpetuate when we attribute adherence to fringe beliefs to excessive open-mindedness.

So. Let's all try to be as open-minded as we possibly can. Our brains aren't going anywhere.

The God Delusion: The Second 100 Pages

Last night, I made a post about the first 100 pages of The God Delusion. I've read farther since then, and I suppose now is as good a time as any to post about my impression of the second 100 pages. (Incidentally, I do not expect to make another post about the third 100 pages; I'll probably wrap up the remainder of the book in a single post. I'll already have given my general impression of the book in these two posts, after all, unless there's something in the latter half to drastically change it, so I probably won't have as much to say about the rest of the book.)

Before beginning, though, I want to give a word of explanation about why I may come across as so critical of the book in these posts. It's not because I don't like it; I'm quite enjoying the read. But I do have my reservations about it, and if I focus in these posts more on the negatives than the positives it's for two reasons. First, because, well, there's simply not as much to say about the positives; I could just repeat approvingly Dawkins' arguments that I liked, but I don't see much point in that; you can read them in the book yourself. The second reason is simply because I haven't really seen much criticism of Dawkins' book from a non-religious perspective; there's plenty of praise of it, but I've seen little real analysis. So, to reiterate, I liked the book (or anyway, I like it so far). I'm not focusing on the negatives because they outnumber or overwhelm the positives, but simply because there's more to say about them, and less that's been said.

Okay, now, having said does seem to me, at least, that the mocking tone I noted in the first 100 pages is much less prominent thereafter (or maybe I'd just grown inured to it, but I don't think so). Perhaps Dawkins got that out of his system in the book's beginning. As to the other matter I mentioned in the previous post, however, that of his alleged misunderstanding of

Let me get out of the way, first, a relatively minor objection, before I move on to something I feel is more significant. Dawkins makes another mention of Mormonism, a subject on which, having been raised Mormon myself and having until relatively recently considered myself a faithful Mormon, I feel perhaps somewhat qualified to comment upon. And...I think what he says about Mormonism is here somewhat misinformed, though it perhaps throws a little light on his then-mystifying suggestion earlier in the book that perhaps Mormonism should be counted as a fourth major Abrahamic religion.

(Technically, by the way, this mention appears on page 201, so I'm cheating a little with my stated focus on the "second 100 pages". But...well, close enough.)

Here's the relevant quotation: "Another candidate for a purely designed religion is Mormonism. Joseph Smith, its enterprisingly mendacious inventor, went to the lengths of composing a complete new holy book, the Book of Mormon, inventing from scratch a whole new bogus American history, written in bogus seventeenth-century English. Mormonism, however, has evolved since it was fabricated in the nineteenth century and has now become one of the respectable mainstream religions of America..."

First of all, there's good reason to believe that Joseph Smith did not, in fact, invent his "new bogus American history" from scratch--there had already existed a very popular book, View of the Hebrews by Ethan Smith, that argued for the supposed descent of Native Americans from Israelite immigrants, and included many other ideas later to appear in the Book of Mormon. To what extent Joseph Smith was familiar with View of the Hebrews and copied material from it may be impossible to prove, but it seems quite likely he was familiar with it (the book's author had even visited his hometown), and there are some very suggestive similarities.

But that's really beside the point, and has no bearing on Mormonism's status as a "purely designed religion". Far more significant is the fact that Mormonism was already undergoing drastic change even in the beginning, under Joseph Smith's leadership. Dawkins seems to be implying that Joseph Smith laid out his religious precepts all in one go, and then only after his death did the doctrines start to evolve and change. (Granted, he doesn't directly say this, and maybe I'm reading too much into his words, but that's what it seems to me he's saying.) But that's not the case at all. In the church's early days, Mormon doctrine was constantly being revised and added to. The Book of Mormon itself sticks quite close to the traditional Protestant theology Joseph Smith was raised in; most of the more esoteric Mormon doctrines that most set the church apart from the mainstream are nowhere to be found in the Book of Mormon, and are pretty clearly later developments. The core Mormon doctrines were not set forth all at once by Joseph Smith; it's pretty clear he was making things up as he went along, fitting them to his situation, and constantly revising.

Granted, it's still arguably true that most of the core tenets of the church were originally the work of one man (Joseph Smith), even if he did change his mind over time and adapt them to circumstances, and even if some later church leaders did make their own lesser changes and revisions. But then, it could be argued about as cogently that most of the core tenets of Christianity were originally the work of Paul of Tarsus to a comparable degree, so if one could argue that Mormonism is a "purely designed religion" one could make a similar argument about Christianity. I get the impression Dawkins has some rather major misconceptions about Mormonism (which, again, may explain why he thinks it's somehow different or important enough to qualify as a fourth "'great' monotheistic religion"). And I admit this does give me some pause; if he's misinformed about the religion I'm most familiar with, perhaps he makes mistakes regarding other religions as well, that I don't recognize because I'm not sufficiently familiar with those religions myself.

But I honestly don't think this matter is important, because Dawkins' target isn't Mormonism or any other specific creed, but religion and supernaturalism in general, and he doesn't have to be closely familiar with the doctrines of individual religions for that. What's more important is that when Dawkins makes what he considers "a very serious argument against the existence of God", and he fails with this argument to convince any theologians, he doesn't seem to understand why. This suggests a definite failure on Dawkins' part to understand the religious mindset. And it wouldn't be such a big deal, perhaps, except that, well, this argument, by Dawkins' own statement, he considers part of "the central argument of [his] book".

The argument in question Dawkins calls "the Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit", and goes as follows: The appearance of design in the universe--including, but not limited to, the existence and diversity of complex life forms--is enormously statistically improbable. This improbability can be explained by natural selection. However, if one posits instead a designer to explain it away, then the designer must be even more complex than what one is trying to explain in the first place, and therefore even more improbable. Therefore, as the chapter heading states, "there almost certainly is no God."

Dawkins tells of a conference at Cambridge in which he made this argument to a number of theologians. By Dawkins' account, the theologians were unable to counter this argument in any satisfactory way: "The strongest response I heard was that I was brutally foisting a scientific epistemology upon an unwilling theology. Theologians had always defined God as simple. Who was I, a scientist, to dictate to theologians that their God had to be complex?"

I wonder, though, how much of the theologians' failure to answer Dawkins' argument was due to their refusal to seriously consider it, and how much, really, was rather due to Dawkins' refusal to seriously consider their responses. Because, honestly, Dawkins' argument strikes me as enormously unsatisfactory and unconvincing. I don't believe in God, but I don't believe in God because I don't see any good reason to believe in God, and in the absence of evidence disbelief is the default. I believe God almost certainly doesn't exist, for the same reason I believe Russell's teapot almost certainly doesn't exist--not because it's inherently impossible, but because there's no evidence of its existence and that it should happen to be there is quite unlikely. (And really, with the utter lack of evidence of God's existence, trying to find evidence of God's nonexistence seems almost superfluous.) But I don't think Dawkins' "Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit" does anything to further establish God's nonexistence. In fact, I don't think Dawkins' "Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit" makes much sense at all.

What's wrong with the argument? Well, that's kind of hard to address explicitly. I would say of Dawkins' argument the same thing that Dawkins quotes Bertrand Russell as having said about St. Anselm's ontological argument for the existence of God: "It is easier to feel that [the argument] must be fallacious than it is to find out precisely where the fallacy lies." (In fact, the "Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit" strikes me as so completely inane that I'm almost tempted to say what Dawkins quotes Jefferson as having said about the Trinity: "Ridicule is the only weapon that can be used against unintelligible propositions." But that's probably going a little too far...) Still, Dawkins did eventually go on to try to pick out the flaw in the ontological argument, whatever his initial impression of its vapidity, and I'll attempt the same for his Ultimate 747 gambit.

The main flaw, I think, lies in the fact that Dawkins is assuming that God must work the same way as known biological creatures. It is this that seems to lie behind his assertion that God must be more complex than his creations. I can conceive of alternatives--I don't believe them, but I can conceive of them. For instance: What if consciousness does have some special sort of nonphysical existence, some sort of being apart from matter and ability to influence its surroundings? Again, I'm not saying I believe that, and the evidence is certainly against it, but it is conceivable. And what if God is just a big mass of omnipotent consciousness (whatever that means), with no particular form or makeup? Even so, how would such an entity have come into existence? Well, it would certainly involve things beyond our understanding, but then again, there are things beyond our understanding. Maybe the real working of consciousness is one of those things, and some mass consciousness is not only possible, but actually simple, in the sense that it could have (in some currently not understood way) have arisen out of nothing--or, better yet, be inherent to the universe and have perforce always existed, a necessary consequence of natural principles that simply aren't yet understood. It's easy to dismiss all this as meaningless babble, but I don't think it's quite that cut and dry; I think such a dismissal really amounts to a refusal to admit to possibilities we don't yet understand--and, given the number of things in the sciences we don't yet understand, I think that's a dangerous attitude for a scientist.

Again, I want to emphasize that I don't actually believe the possibilities raised in the previous paragraph. I tend to agree with Dawkins that the existence or nonexistence of God is, in principle, a scientific question, and I think if God existed we'd have some evidence of it (which we do not). And we have a perfectly good alternate explanation, in the form of natural selection (and perhaps not yet understood analogues in the nonbiological sciences) for the existence of all that statistical improbability; appealing to a God, simple or not, is not necessary. (And such an appeal certainly has no real explanatory power, since it could be used to hand-wave away anything at all.) I don't think God really is a formless mass consciousness--or exists at all.

But it is conceivable that a God could exist who is "simple" in the sense that his existence could be explained by some way other than appealing to extreme improbabilities (even if it involves principles we don't currently understand). It isn't necessarily the case that a creator God must be more statistically improbable than the world he created, if we allow that that God may have come into existence (or may have been required to have always existed) by laws and processes we don't currently understand--and I'm certainly not willing to state categorically that there are no laws and principles we don't currently understand. In essence, it seems to me that Dawkins' Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit amounts ultimately to nothing more than an Argument from Personal Incredulity--which is somewhat ironic, since Dawkins coined that term.

Once again, I am certainly not arguing that God exists. I agree with Dawkins' conclusions--albeit for different reasons. I just have problems with this particular one of Dawkins' arguments. And really, this wouldn't be such a big deal--it's just one argument among many, after all--if Dawkins himself didn't make so much of this argument, and, again, hold it up as part of "the central argument of [his] book". If his central argument is that vacuous, that's a bit of a problem. And if it's really the case that Dawkins "ha[s] yet to hear a theologian give a convincing answer despite numerous opportunities and invitations to do so", that seems to me to say more about Dawkins, and his apparent refusal to consider esoteric (but conceivable) possibilities, than about the theologians.

(As a side note--not really terribly relevant, perhaps, but possibly interesting--I'll mention that Mormon doctrine does purport to give an explanation of God's origin--albeit not a particularly productive one. It's one of the more arcane bits of Mormon theology that isn't generally explained to prospective converts (perhaps for fear of scaring them away with something so radical), but it's there. According to LDS doctrine, God was once a human, who went through a mortal life just as we're doing now, and remained faithful to the necessary principles so that he proved himself worthy of eventually being elevated to godhood--just as the humans of this world may, if they follow the necessary commandments, go through the necessary ordinances, and take upon themselves the necessary covenants. By implication, when God was a mortal, he had worshipped his own heavenly father, another God who, presumably, had also once been a mortal, spirit child of a previous God, and so on, and so forth. So, of course, this doesn't really explain anything--it's just turtles all the way down.)

Again, I feel like I'm probably coming across as terribly critical here, and I don't want to give the impression that I disliked the book. I didn't; I've enjoyed the book quite a bit. But, unfortunately, I do think it's flawed. I have been disappointed, but that's largely because of my high expectations; it's still well worth reading, even if it isn't perfect. (Then again, what is?)

Ah, well. On to the rest of the book...

Monday, August 13, 2007

The God Delusion: The First 100 Pages

This month's selection for The Skeptics' Book Club is a book I'd long been thinking I ought to read (and have been told so), so I'm kind of glad to have this excuse to make the time to do so: The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins.

I probably don't have to explain what the book is about, or who Dawkins is; I'm sure everyone reading this knows all that already. (And if somehow someone doesn't, well, you can click on the links in the previous paragraph.)

As the title of this post implies, I haven't finished the book yet (though I expect to do so before the book club meeting). However, I decided to go ahead and make a post about as much of it as I've read so far, for two reasons: first, because I'm sure I'll have more to say about the rest of the book--and better a few reasonably-sized posts than one really long one--and second, because, uh, it's been way too long since my last post anyway.

So. First of all, let me mention what I'd heard about the book before I read it--the same, I'd imagine, as everyone else had heard about it. In general, theists said that it was a venomous attack on religion, which Dawkins clearly didn't even really understand at all. The godless, on the other hand, said that the supposed venom was grossly exaggerated.

I really wish I could say that the theists were completely wrong here.

Okay, first of all, on the charge of Dawkins not understanding religion: eh, I dunno about that one. Granted, I'm only a hundred pages in, and maybe he makes some major mistakes later on, but so far there's only one thing I've run across I'd really classify as inaccurate or unfair. When discussing the inadequacy of scripture as proof of God's existence, Dawkins points out the contradictions in Biblical accounts, and then laments the ignorance of Biblical literalists who--he assumes--are unaware of them. "...[T]here are many unsophisticated Christians out there who...take the Bible very seriously indeed as a literal and accurate record of history and hence as evidence supporting their religious beliefs. Do these people never open the book that they believe is the literal truth? Why don't they notice these glaring contradictions?"

In my experience--and since Mormon doctrine does include a highly literal interpretation of the Bible, I do have experience with this--Biblical literalists aren't all that stupid, or that ignorant. Yes, they--not all of them, I'm sure, but many--do read the Bible, and they're aware of the contradictions. However, they are also aware of rationalizations that apologists have come up with to reconcile those contradictions (or are capable of coming up with such rationalizations on their own). As I remarked in a previous post, there almost always are ways to paper over an apparent contradiction, if you're creative enough, and maybe willing to bend words a little. Of course, the apologetic "explanations" may strike non-believers as ad hoc and rather desperate, but the fact remains that Biblical literalists aren't necessarily ignorant of the contradictions in the Bible--and nor are they necessarily any more "unsophisticated" than Christians who feel free to interpret the Bible more liberally.

(Actually, there is one other point in the book that puzzled me, and that I suppose this is as good a place as any to mention. At one point Dawkins refers to "the three 'great' monotheistic religions (four if you count Mormonism), all of which trace themselves back to the mythological patriarch Abraham". Guh? The three main religions Dawkins is referring to are, of course, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam...but what possible reason would there be to count Mormonism separately? Sure, many Protestants don't consider Mormons true Christians--but many Protestants don't consider Catholics and Jehovah's Witnesses true Christians either, and Dawkins doesn't propose counting them separately. Sure, Mormon doctrine does have some very significant and fundamental differences with the more mainstream Protestant doctrine--but again, the same is true of Catholicism and the Jehovah's Witnesses, and he doesn't propose counting them separately. Sure, LDS church leaders may like to repeat that Mormonism is the fastest-growing religion in the world--but there's little or no evidence that that's true, and many other religions make the same claim. [EDIT: It's been pointed out to me in a comment that it's not really the church leaders who make these claims--the claims are made, and are often repeated by church members in talks and lessons, but they originate from other sources, not from the church leadership.] Besides, if we're just going by raw numbers--well, to pick on the same two examples I've been using up until now, both the Catholics and the Jehovah's Witnesses outnumber the Mormons. So why single Mormonism out as a fourth "'great' monotheistic religion"? I am honestly baffled.

All right, and, for the sake of completeness, there is one other slight inaccuracy I could remark on. Dawkins dismisses a little too categorically belief in God as "an old man in the sky with a long white beard", implying, though not stating outright, that nobody really literally believes in that. In fact, though, some people do believe in God as literally a white-bearded man in the sky--Mormons at least arguably among them; they even have a name for God's home planet or star (Kolob). But this isn't at all important to Dawkins' points, so it isn't worth dwelling on.)

That aside, though, I didn't see--so far, at least--any signs that Dawkins really had any fundamental misunderstanding of religion. He may have gotten some details wrong, but nothing crucial to his arguments, and nothing that isn't forgivable in someone speaking outside his area of expertise. So on that charge, I'd say (at least, again, judging from the first hundred pages) he's mostly innocent.

But on the charge of his mocking and derisive tone: uh, yeah. Let's not kid ourselves. It's there.

"I shall not go out of my way to offend," Dawkins writes at the end of the first chapter, "but nor shall I don kid gloves to handle religion any more gently than I would handle anything else."

And then thus begins chapter 2: "The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully."

I daresay anyone who believed in the God of the Old Testament might find that sentence just a shade offensive.

This is by no means the only example of inflammatory language. He says that "[w]hat impresses [him] about Catholic mythology is partly its tasteless kitsch but mostly the airy nonchalance with which these people make up the details as they go along." I've already reproduced above his rather insulting characterization of Biblical literalists. He calls St. Anselm's ontological argument "infantile" and casts it "in the language of the playground", with the argument's proponent, in his relation, resorting to the nonsensical taunt "Nur Nurny Nur Nur".

I am not accusing Dawkins of going against the sentence he ended his first chapter with. He did say he wasn't going to handle religion with kid gloves, and I am willing to believe that he is not going out of his way to offend. He has strong feelings about religion--and, I would say, justifiably so--and so if he's not intentionally restraining himself he tends to write about it in strong language and in jeering scorn. That's understandable.

And, to be fair, I should quote the sentence preceding that last sentence of the first chapter: "It is in the light of the unparalleled presumption of respect for religion that I make my own disclaimer for this book." The "unparalleled presumption of respect for religion" is what he had just spent the last seven and a half pages explaining: the fact that religion gets a bye that other practices and belief systems don't enjoy, that society demands that broad allowances be made for religious belief that are not made for any other cause. Therefore, any attacks on religion are perceived as offensive far out of proportion to their real content or intent.

He has a point, and it is something I tried to keep in mind. How, I thought, would language comparable to what Dawkins writes here come across in another context, other than religion? Well, I suppose Dawkins speaks no more harshly about religion than typical pundits do about those of opposing political views. But except in extreme cases such pundits aren't generally attacked as being wildly offensive.

However, there's another factor that I think must be kept in mind here. Political pundits, when they write diatribes against the other side, aren't really trying to win over their opponents. In general, they're writing for people who already agree with them. They don't expect to make converts, and they're not really worried about offending people.

Dawkins, on the other hand, is trying to make converts--or "de-converts". He explicitly says as much in his preface: "If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down." He acknowledges, of course, that it may be hard to motivate believers to read his book in the first place: "Among the more effective immunological devices is a dire warning to avoid even opening a book like this". What he doesn't seem to recognize is the possibility that a believer who does read his book may be so offended by his ridicule that he refuses to take in the message--or may even become more entrenched in his beliefs, as a reaction against Dawkins' mockery.

Again, I am not doubting that Dawkins was being genuine about his intentions in that last sentence of the first chapter. I believe him when he says that he didn't go out of his way to offend. I believe him that any offensiveness is simply because of his refusal to "don kid gloves".

But I think maybe he should have tried those gloves on for size.

I'm not saying Dawkins' outrage is unwarranted. I agree that religion does a lot of damage; I agree there's a lot there that's worthy of ridicule. But ridicule doesn't win converts--and by Dawkins' own admission, that's what he's set out to do. I don't think this is the way to do it. Like the political pundits, he's going to end up--or, since the book was published last year, perhaps I should say he probably already has ended up--just encouraging those who already agree with him. Or, to use a phrase that originated in a religious context...preaching to the choir.

I made a post a long while back on Mormon missionary methods. Now, I may not believe in Mormon doctrine--and I may have serious doubts that Mormonism is really the fastest-growing religion like its leaders some of its members claim--but there's no doubt that Mormonism has had a lot of success with its missionaries, and with a century and change to hone their methods they've had plenty of time to figure out what works. And one of the biggest things that is stressed to Mormon missionaries is to "build relationships of trust"--to win people over by expressing interest in their activities, but also by starting out with talk of common beliefs. Among themselves, Mormons do plenty of ridiculing of other churches' doctrines (and vice versa, of course). But the church knows better than to send its missionaries out to mock potential converts. If a Mormon missionary is engaging a Catholic in conversation, he's supposed to first discuss their commonalities--faith in God, belief in the Bible, and so forth--and when he does discuss what sets the Mormon church apart, he's supposed to do so in a way that still shows respect to his interlocutor's beliefs. Certainly a good Mormon missionary would never go up to a Catholic and tell him his religion was full of "tasteless kitsch" and that the priests were just "mak[ing] up the details as they go along". Any missionary who tried that would just get a door slammed in his face.

And I fear, from the backlash I've seen against Dawkins, that that, in a figurative sense, is just what happened to him. He went to the religious and told them how unsophisticated and silly they were, and they responded by refusing to listen to him and calling him rude. Now, again, I think Dawkins is right; religious beliefs are pretty silly, when you look at them without the lens of indoctrination in the way. But that's not the best approach to use to try to win people over.

Now, one might say--and many have said--that, well, someone has to be blunt and direct; someone has to tell it like it is. And yes, maybe someone does. But that someone shouldn't expect to win many believers to his side. And anyway, others are already doing that; from what I've heard, other major atheist writers--Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris--are even more abrasive than Dawkins. It can also be said that religion doesn't deserve respect; that--as Dawkins says in the prologue--it's already respected far more than it should be. Also true, but, again, if your goal is to win people over, you're not going to do it by insulting them.

I'm not saying I haven't been enjoying the book. Dawkins makes some good points, and some interesting arguments. And really, I wouldn't be having such a problem with it if it weren't intended--according to Dawkins--to turn believers into atheists. As a sermon to the choir, it's excellent. As a missionary tract, though, I have a hard time not seeing it as doomed to failure.

Ah, well. As I said, I'm still enjoying the book, and we'll see what I think of the other 274 pages...

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Getting to the Premises

I recall some years back a Mormon friend boasting of an encounter he'd had with a born-again Christian. He had taken issue with the born-again's claim that just accepting Christ into your heart was enough to be saved. LDS doctrine puts a lot of emphasis on "enduring to the end", on remaining faithful, and on the dangers of even those who had been firm in the church falling into error, so the idea that a one-time choice would be enough to guarantee salvation didn't ring true with him.

"But what if someone accepts Christ, and then later goes on a murdering spree?" the Mormon had challenged the born-again.

"If he really accepted Christ, he wouldn't do that," was the other's response.

"But what if he did?"

"It would never happen. He wouldn't do it."

"But what if he did?"

My Mormon friend recounted this exchange with obvious pride, clearly very satisfied with how he had handled himself. I kept my mouth shut, but what I was thinking was: Wow. You completely lost that debate, and you don't even realize it.

It's not that I disagreed with his position, of course. This was long before my deconversion, when I still (at least ostensibly) believed the Mormon church to be true. So I agreed with his point of view. But his method of argument struck me as pointless. He wasn't addressing his interlocutor's point at all. If the born-again truly believed that someone who had accepted Christ would never afterward commit serious sins, then asking "What if he did?" is meaningless. It is (according to his worldview) not just a counterfactual, but an impossibility. You might as well ask "What if 2 plus 2 was 5?" or "What if God created a rock so big he couldn't lift it?"

Of course, though I didn't really consider this at the time, another problem with his argument is that it could be turned around just as easily to try to attack Mormonism. Mormons believe that they know the church is true because they have received a testimony through the Holy Ghost; God Himself has told them it's true. So...what if the Holy Ghost tells them it's false? Well...that wouldn't happen; they've already received a testimony that it's true; God wouldn't contradict himself. But what if He did? Well, he wouldn't. But what if He did? And so forth, and so on. It would be essentially the same argument as my friend had with the born-again...and it would be just as unproductive.

Such an argument, in fact, could be attempted against any viewpoint whatsoever...and it would be equally useless. Asking what would happen if something were true that according to the premises of the person's beliefs could not possibly be true doesn't really accomplish anything. You are--according to that person's beliefs--asking a what if about an impossibility. The question isn't provocative; it isn't damaging to the person's belief system. It is, quite simply--within the context of his worldview--completely meaningless.

Which is why I thought--and still think--that my Mormon friend had badly lost his debate with the born-again without realizing it. The born-again had stated his point of view, and all the Mormon had done was repeat what was essentially a nonsense phrase. The born-again's statement had gone unanswered and uncontested in any meaningful way, and the Mormon had just ended up spouting gibberish (within the context of the born-again's premises).

Now, what could have been a valid argument against the born-again's statement? Well, rather than ask him to consider something that couldn't possibly happen given the premises of his belief, a better tactic would have been to call into question the premises themselves. Why wouldn't a person who had accepted Christ commit a sin? He'd likely have an answer to that (my guess as to his answer: because truly accepting Christ into his heart would remove the desire for sin), but that could lead to more questions. How does he know that would remove the desire for sin? For that matter, how could you know whether or not someone had truly accepted Christ in the first place?

But of course I think there's a good reason that line of argument didn't occur to my Mormon friend. Because this, too, could be turned against Mormonism itself--and with more validity than the former method. You know the church is true because the Holy Ghost told you? Well, how do you know that "witness" really came from the Holy Ghost? A faithful Mormon would have an answer to that--something, perhaps, about how the feelings of peace that the Holy Ghost gives cannot be counterfeited by anything else--but again, the same question could be asked, how does he know that? At some level, there are premises that can be questioned. And of course, this doesn't apply just to Mormonism; it applies to any faith-based belief system.

(Of course, science has its basic premises too--the existence of cause and effect, that the laws of physics work the same everywhere, and so on. Certainly those premises aren't immune to being questioned. But on the other hand, they have a very good track record; the scientific method has made a lot of successful predictions, and led to a lot of important discoveries. So if we're asked how we know that those premises are true, we have a good answer--not, of course, that we do know, or could ever know, with absolute, 100% accuracy, but given the success of the predictions those premises have so far led to, their validity seems to have been established with a very high level of probability. The premises of faith and religion don't have that distinction.)

This is a general principle that I think important to keep in mind when considering religious claims. It's easy to ask what-ifs that seem to challenge religious beliefs, but given the premises of those beliefs, the what-ifs are easy to answer--or to dismiss as meaningless. The important thing isn't to question the consequences of the premises, but to question the premises themselves.

The real question isn't "What if". It's "How do you know".

Unfortunately, it's a question that the faithful are all too seldom willing to seriously consider...